John Frankenheimer was a master of the thinking man's thriller, a filmmaker who loved to uncover the twisted machinations behind a political conspiracy but also thrived on a good, old-fashioned, smash-'em-crash-'em car chase.
"The John Frankenheimer Collection" ($39.98, now available) delivers plenty of both, even though it comes with only four of the director's movies. The car-chase quota is more than met in 1998's "Ronin," which is known for its stunning speedathon through the streets and tunnels of Paris. In addition to the Robert De Niro flick, the set contains Frankenheimer's most revered work, 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," as well as two collaborations with Burt Lancaster, 1961's "The Young Savages" and 1964's "The Train."
Except for "The Young Savages," which marked Frankenheimer's switch from television work to feature films, these movies are already on DVD. In fact, Frankenheimer fans probably own the other three films, which have been repackaged for the collection. So don't expect new bonus features for "The Manchurian Candidate." The extras (including two brief featurettes and a 20-year-old interview with Frankenheimer, writer-producer George Axelrod and star Frank Sinatra) are on the 2004 special edition.
The supplemental material is the biggest disappointment about the box set. "The Manchurian Candidate," "The Train" and "Ronin" all offer whispery, intermittently interesting commentaries by Frankenheimer, but "The Young Savages" has no extras. In a compilation supposedly released to celebrate the filmmaker's work (he died in 2002), a documentary about his career or legacy should have been a requirement. As it stands, a curious cinema fan can learn more about the man by reading a Wikipedia entry than by plunking down the 40 bucks to buy these discs.
What makes the collection worthwhile are the films themselves, all of which strike enough of a contemporary tone to make them still feel relevant. "The Young Savages" contains formulaic bits (a shot of a young gang member kicking over a baby carriage induces cackles), but its portrait of a flawed judicial system that doesn't do enough to rehabilitate troubled teens bears a striking resemblance to some of the plotlines on HBO's "The Wire."
The special effects in "The Train," including numerous railway collisions and more than a few bombs, could give today's computer-generated trickery a run for its money. And "The Manchurian Candidate," the superbly crafted classic about a far-reaching and intricate communist plot, remains so politically on target that Hollywood remade it with Denzel Washington in 2004. Although that reimagining was hardly a dud, the original, with its explosive performance by Angela Lansbury as the manipulative mother of a war hero, is still superior.
"Ronin" was one of Frankenheimer's last films and proudly bears the filmmaker's trademark as a high-IQ action flick. Along with the other films in this collection, it reminds us that Frankenheimer not only relished a great chase but made those chases so compelling that we were always willing to race right along with him.